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Leadership

http://lea.sagepub.com Living Leadership: A Systemic Constructionist Approach


J. Kevin Barge and Gail T. Fairhurst Leadership 2008; 4; 227 DOI: 10.1177/1742715008092360 The online version of this article can be found at: http://lea.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/4/3/227

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Leadership

Living Leadership: A Systemic Constructionist Approach


J. Kevin Barge and Gail T. Fairhurst, Texas A&M University, USA and University of Cincinnati, USA

Abstract This article offers a practical theory of leadership grounded in systemic thinking and social constructionism. A systemic constructionist approach conceptualizes leadership as a co-created, performative, attributional, and contextual process where the ideas articulated in talk or action are recognized by others as progressing tasks that are important to them. Using a systemic constructionist framework, we argue that leadership theory and research needs to give attention to three important discursive practices: (1) sensemaking, (2) positioning, and (3) play. The implications for theory, research, and practice from a systemic constructionist perspective are highlighted. Keywords discourse; leadership; play; positioning; practical theory; sensemaking; social constructionism; systemic The study of leadership communication has a long-standing history even though analysts have worried at various times about its peripheral status within the organizational sciences (Barge & Schleuter, 1991; Fairhurst, 2001; Goldhaber et al., 1978; Jablin, 1979; Mumby, 2007; Redding, 1972, 1985). However, with the linguistic turn in the social sciences (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000a), leadership communication has begun to shed its status as an epiphenomena due to ferment in the eld not just around communication, but discourse and relational stances (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a; Barge, 2004a; Collinson, 2005; Cooren, 2007; Cunliffe, 2002; Fairhurst, 2007; Grint, 2000; Gronn, 2002; Hosking, 1988; Kelly et al., 2006; Shotter & Cunliffe, 2003; Uhl-Bien, 2006). This special issue of Leadership is further testimony to such ferment. Much as organizations are now being cast as discursive constructions (Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004), leadership is also being viewed as a discursive construction and a legitimate alternative to leadership psychologys individualistic hold on all things leadership (Collinson, 2005; Fairhurst, 2007; Grint, 2000). However, such a move glosses the diversity in what is increasingly known as discursive leadership (Fairhurst, 2007). Key to understanding this diversity hinges on scholars use of the terms discourse versus communication (Jian et al., in press). The former centers squarely on the research enterprise with its ontological
Copyright 2008 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore) Vol 4(3): 227251 DOI: 10.1177/1742715008092360 http://lea.sagepub.com
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and epistemological commitments to interpretive, critical, or postmodern theorizing vis--vis leadership; the latter is increasingly associated with praxis and practical theorizing (Barge, 2004a, 2004b). While this article draws from research on leadership as a discursive construction, it emphasizes communication leadership as a lived and experienced social activity in which persons-in-conversation, action, meaning, and context are dynamically interrelated. Toward this end, we propose a practical theory of leadership grounded in systemic thinking and social constructionism. Using a systemic constructionist framework, we argue for practical theorizing around three key leadership practices: (1) sensemaking, (2) positioning, and (3) play. We conclude by highlighting implications for leadership theory and practice.

Denitions and differences that make a difference


Jian et al. (in press) observe that the terms discourse and communication must be the progeny of Proteus, the Greek sea god, because their forms can vary widely and even be used interchangeably. They are protean, and not always helpfully so. While discourse and communication exist in an inextricably close relationship, we argue that organizational actors operate in communication and through discourse. Leadership actors co-create their subjectivities personal and professional identities, relationships, communities, and cultures in communication through linguistic and embodied performances. Communicative action can modify and elaborate existing connections among actors, action, meaning, and context or create new ones. Lived moments within the communicative process are inevitably distinct and novel given the unique intersection of time, topic, people, and place. New possibilities for meaning-making and action therefore continually emerge as each utterance introduces new elements that may be picked up as threads for future development. Communication speaks to key process issues such as co-creation, connection, uniqueness, and emergence associated with the experience of interacting with others. It is through discourse where language and communication meet because discourse is language that is used for some communicative purpose (Ellis, 1992: 84). Discourse is always realized in text that is organized interactively, linguistically, and cognitively. Note that our conceptualization of language here brings with it certain affordances (Gibson, 1979) by virtue of the formal properties of a linguistic system (for example, the English language), but also the range of communicative uses to which it may be put. Such a view suggests a Foucauldian (1980, 1995) view of discourse, or what Alvesson and Karreman (2000b) term big D Discourse. In this view, Discourse supplies a set of linguistic resources to the social actor because they derive from culturally standardized systems of thought constellations of talk, ideas, logics, and assumptions that constitute objects and subjects in particular ways. However, when we talk about the actual use of language, we are in the realm of little d discourse (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000b).1 This view references the textual form of social interaction, focusing specically on how action coheres in the sequential ow of messages and the use of language in the patterning of communicative activity. Therefore, communication is perhaps best seen as the doing, while text is the done, in little d written or spoken forms (Taylor & Van Every, 2000). Little d discourse thus represents the textual form of the communication process, while big

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D Discourse represents its cultural meaning potentials for actors and observers alike. Researchers who study leadership discourse do not necessarily study communication as a lived experience (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003b; Fairhurst et al., 2002; Taylor & Robichaud, 2006; Tourish & Vatcha, 2005). For example, in her book on discursive leadership Fairhurst (2007) argues that studying: (a) the sequential ow of leadership interaction begets a distributed view of leadership; (b) membership categorization brings leadership as the management of meaning to life as leadership actors prove to be incessant category users; (c) disciplinary power reveals leaders to be passive receptors of meaning as much as they are its managers and transformative agents; (d) narrative logics reveal the narrative foundation of a rational, exchange based theory like leadermember exchange; and (e) material mediations reveal how something as elusive as charismatic leadership can be networked as a series of human-nonhuman hybrids. Such work is intended to challenge leadership psychologys individualistic worldview with a social and cultural one and says relatively little, in direct terms, about the moment-to-moment lived dynamics of the communicating actors.2 A shift toward studying communication as a lived experience raises the question of what is actionable knowledge or practical theory for leadership actors. Practical theory is a relatively recent development in the social sciences, drawing heavily from the pragmatism of Dewey (1920/1948) and the more recent work by Barge (2001, 2004a), Craig (1989; Craig & Tracy, 1995), Cronen (1995, 2001), Forrester (1999), and Shotter (1993; Shotter & Cunliffe, 2003). In tune with action science (Argyris et al., 1987), practical theorists transpose the usual gureground emphasis on theory over use of theory (Dewey, 1920/1948). Theory for theorys sake, separate from and taught prior to the normal course of action, is not nearly as powerful as viewing theory as instrumental within the course of action (Cronen, 1995, 2001). Practical theories thus provide resources for individuals to create situated sensibilities to act within the moment, also known as phronesis.3 Practical theories differ from scientic theories in at least three ways. First, practical theories are viewed as instrumentalities or tools that help analysts make sense of how people connect with each other as opposed to providing a map of our social worlds. Practical theories are not descriptions or reconstructions of practice, but are sets of ideas, models, and practices that provide analysts the tools to engage and extend the process of inquiry into human systems by helping organize and analyze information. Second, practical theories are overtly heuristic by employing concepts and tools that permit plural readings of situations. Cronen (2001: 36) notes that, single explanations blind the inquiry process to alternatives, while Weick (2007) argues that creating rich explanations, accounts, and readings of situations are important elements of theorizing. Practical theories keep requisite variety alive by employing concepts and tools that permit plural readings of situations. When we create multiple readings, we create the possibility for rich comparisons that allow us to consider diverse details constituting situations. Third, practical theories implicate actions leading to the consequence of improving the situation. Similar to the literature on reective practice and action science (Argyris et al., 1987; Argyris & Schon, 1978; Schon, 1983), the process of theorizing should provide a sense of orientation and enable action from within the ow of interaction.

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An organizational theorist like Karl Weick (1979, 1995) qualies as a practical theorist given his theory of sensemaking. Admonishing scholars to read with theories in hand because theories increase requisite variety (Weick, 2007: 16), Weicks sensemaking theory offers a set of provocative concepts such as enactment, retrospective sensemaking, and heedful interrelating that can serve as descriptive diagnostic tools that facilitate analysts or actors abilities to develop rich situational accounts. Weicks commitment to thick description has also led to ideas that more than just hint at specic lines of action.4 For example, Weick and Sutcliffes (2001) discussion of mindfulness in connection to high reliability organizations (HROs) counter intuitively urges actors to become preoccupied with failure.5 Because success often breeds complacency, Weick and Sutcliffe argue that such preoccupation is the key to keeping ones mental models sharp that, in turn, increases the ability to effectively and spontaneously respond at the moment of crisis. Note how this concept plays out in the lived experience of Vince, a manager of a small manufacturing rm: I live in a world of uncertainty, Im not nave any longer . . . I come in the morning now and Im a skeptic. I say, Okay, rst tell me about all of the casualties, I want to set priorities. What are the things that might take us out of business today? Im not being wise, Im being a realist . . . Right now were wrestling with keeping two boilers up and running . . . Yeah, we gotta game plan and we try to set a course of direction, but then I live with the reality of the situation. I can go back Monday and the boiler is gone so how do we address this problem? You really have to be nimble of foot here, youve got to be able to react, you dont know whats going to be thrown at you. You try to prepare yourself for the unexpected, and with a number of eyes looking ahead with me, maybe well see a few of the potholes that are approaching us . . . If you look at the plant, the plant itself is like a rickety old car with band aids and rubber bands! (Shotter & Cunliffe, 2003: 2425) Concepts such as a preoccupation with failure can serve as tools that simultaneously facilitate diagnosis and description as well as generate subsequent actions to create mindfulness in high reliability organizations or those wishing to emulate such smart systems (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001). For Vince, his rickety old car metaphor serves just this purpose. Despite welcome and emerging discourse-based leadership research, we argue that there is a concomitant need for more practical theorizing of leadership that takes into account the living, spontaneous, co-constructed performances of leadership actors. Such a construction would provide a framework for understanding the living unity of leaders, leadership, communication, action, meaning, and context. We offer such a construction rooted in systemic thinking and social constructionism.

Systemic constructionism, practical theory, and leadership


A systemic constructionist approach grounds the development of a practical theory of leadership in the lived experience and social practices of persons in conversation. Our development of a systemic constructionist approach is guided by three interrelated questions: (1) how is leadership performed? (2) what counts as leadership? and

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(3) what are the consequences of particular leadership constructions? In order to answer these questions, we need to articulate how systemic thinking and social constructionism interweave in our formulation of systemic constructionist leadership.

Connecting systemic thinking and social constructionism


A systemic constructionist approach to leadership integrates systemic thinking with social constructionism. Campbell (2000) suggests that systemic thinking represents a particular perspective toward describing and explaining lived patterns of behavior, Systemic thinking is a way to make sense of the relatedness of everything around us. In its broadest application, it is a way of thinking that gives practitioners the tools to observe the connectedness of people, things, and ideas: everything connects to everything else. (p. 7) Systemic thinking is grounded in Batesons (1972) work that explores the patterns of communication that constitute human systems. Rather than reduce descriptions of peoples behavior to linear-causal models that emphasize psychological phenomena such as personality traits, belief structures, or motives, Bateson argues that to predict behavior a systemic approach must pay attention to the reciprocal or mutual causality among persons, whereby the behavior of any individual is the product of the interaction among persons (Bateson, 1972; Bateson et al., 1956; Sexton, 1994). Bateson (1972) argues that human beings exist in a world of interlocking sequences of action, or circuits of interaction, which over time become guided by relational rules. The concept of circuitry draws attention to the importance of feedback within human systems. Cybernetic theory suggests that systems are self-regulating as feedback loops connect different elements of the system. Bateson (1972) argues that it is feedback that creates and sustains patterns of interaction within human systems, and that an individuals identity and experience is informed by his or her place in the pattern. To understand how a human system operates and changes over time, it is important to focus on the pattern that connects members of a human system through their reciprocal feedback to each other and to fully recognize the difference that makes a difference how introducing new bits of information into a system can create new connections and patterns. More recent systemic approaches have embraced second-order cybernetics, which has shifted the focus from feedback processes to meaning making (Dallos & Draper, 2000; Hedges, 2005). The focus on human systems as sites for meaning making highlights the need for social constructionist ideas and concepts that explore how personsin-conversation co-create social arrangements such as identities and relationships through language. Social constructionism is concerned with how the use of language and the structuring of conversations create meaning and subjectivity. Burr (2003) identies several key commitments that inform social constructionism: (1) language is a form of social action that creates identities, relationships, organizations, and cultures; (2) explanations of social phenomena are to be developed within the interactions and social practices of persons; and (3) forms of knowledge are historically and culturally bound. Given that leaders mainly work with words and the

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interactional surround (Hoffman, 1990), situating social constructionism within a systemic frame creates a focus on how discourse creates meaning within human systems. We favor using the term systemic constructionist to describe our theoretical orientation in order to draw attention to each of these important theoretical inuences. Campbell (2000) suggests systemic thinking has traditionally been concerned with observing patterns of interaction within a system and asking what is happening, whereas social constructionism has focused on the explanation of action, why it is happening, how persons use language to account for their social worlds. The term systemic constructionism focuses our attention on the coordination of meaning and action within human systems and how language invites, creates, and sustains particular patterns of coordination and discourages others. A systemic constructionist approach to leadership answers the three questions that began this section in a particular way. A systemic constructionist approach would address the rst question, how is leadership being performed?, by focusing attention on little d discourse and examining the sociality or patterns of coordination created by the string of jointly produced utterances by leadership actors. A systemic constructionist approach to leadership would suggest that an appropriate answer to the second question, what counts as leadership?, would be it depends, recognizing that peoples conceptualizations of leadership are variable and contingent on the big D Discourses they invoke through their talk. What counts as leadership is highly contextualized and dynamic; it can only be unpacked by exploring how leadership actors negotiate a working denition of leadership utilizing the meaning potentials that Discourse provides. A systemic constructionist approach would respond to the third question, what are the consequences of particular leadership constructions?, by examining the social construction of the system the reexive relationships among leadership d/Discourses and the effects they produce, the subjectivities they generate, and their ability to progress tasks through their connectivity.

Articulating a systemic constructionist leadership approach


Drawing on Fairhurst (2007), we view leadership as a co-created, performative, contextual, and attributional process where the ideas articulated in talk or action are recognized by others as progressing tasks that are important to them. At rst glance it might seem contradictory to x the meaning of leadership by offering a conceptual denition, given that social constructionist approaches view meaning as coconstructed, contextual, and contestable. However, it is important to provide some guidance to leadership scholars as to the focus and values informing a practical theory of leadership from a systemic constructionist perspective. Any conceptualization of leadership is grounded explicitly or implicitly in a set of value commitments that provide a sense of orientation as to what is important for leadership actors in situ as well as what leadership theorists should consider when developing their research accounts. Moreover, Whitehead and McNiffs (McNiff et al., 2003; McNiff & Whitehead, 2006; Whitehead & McNiff, 2006) work on valuedbased practice suggests that values also create living standards of judgment for assessing the quality of practice:

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Criteria and standards of judgement are different things. Criteria take the form of words and phrases that are used as markers of performance . . . Such criteria, however say little about the quality of practice, that is, what is good about the practice . . . Making judgements about the quality of practice means making value judgements, in terms of what you nd valuable in the practices. Value judgements then become standards of judgement. You judge things in terms of what you think is good. (Whitehead & McNiff, 2006: 71) For leadership actors, the values associated with a particular approach provide a means to assess the quality of their current practice as it is experienced within conversational episodes (that is, the degree to which they live out these values in practice) and to make judgments about the quality of elaborations or changes in their practice (that is, the degree to which these alterations improve their ability to create linguistic performances that reect these values). Similarly, values also create a set of standards through which leadership scholars may evaluate the quality of their theoretical accounts. A systemic constructionist approach makes several value commitments regarding the importance of communication, connection, uniqueness, emergence, and afrmation (see Table 1). The quality of leadership theory and practice can be judged by the degree to which it: (1) takes into account the way that language creates situations, events, and people; (2) adopts a systemic unit of analysis; (3) captures the unique qualities of situations, events, and people; (4) fosters a sense of emergence and development; and (5) afrms what is good in the situation.

Communication
At the heart of a systemic constructionist practical theory of leadership is the notion that persons co-create their subjectivity in the form of personal and professional identities, relationships, and cultures through linguistic performance. As Grint (2005) observes, reality is constructed through language and, in turn, since language is a social phenomenon, the account of reality which prevails is often both a temporary
Table 1 Systemic constructionist value commitments
Value commitments Communication Connection Description Leadership actors co-create identities, relationships, and cultures through linguistic performances. Understanding leadership within a human system depends on articulating the connections among persons-in-conversation, action, meaning, and context. Leadership actors operate within unique contexts dened by time, place, people, and topic. Focuses on new possibilities for meaning making and action that are continuously co-created. Leadership actors are encouraged to connect with each others moral orders and grammars in order to afrm others lived experiences.

Uniqueness Emergence Afrmation

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and a collective phenomenon (p. 1471). The contested and temporary nature of reality also emphasizes the important role that leadership actors play in the construction of contexts that legitimates their intended or executed actions and accounts (Grint, 2005: 1472). The value commitment of communication is lived out in practice when leadership actors treat aspects of a human system as made rather than found and when researchers focus on the co-construction of identities and subjectivities within leadership. The notion of treating an element of a human system as a thing that has causes, attributes, and effects rather than as a co-construction, biases the hypotheses and interventions that can be developed (Pearce et al., 1992: 78). For example, treating leadership presence as a psychological phenomenon moves us to consider the causes and effects of the thing we call presence as opposed to a co-constructed process involving multiple actants and social practices that contribute to the performance of presence (Fairhurst & Cooren, 2008).

Connection
A systemic constructionist practical theory of leadership values descriptions and accounts of leadership that focus on patterns of connections that constitute human systems versus individual elements. It gives attention to the dynamic connections among persons, communication, action, meaning, and context within human systems. A systemic constructionist approach attempts to grasp the living unity of the unfolding chain of utterances within the larger socio-historical context in order to understand how the different pieces of a system t together to mutually dene one another. For persons creating leader positions, this means that they are more than just readers of situations (Shotter, 1993) engaging in an analytical activity where they logically determine their subsequent action and impose it on others (Grint, 2000). Rather, they co-author situations with others through what may be best characterized as an inventive activity where their actions modify and elaborate existing connections among persons, communication, action, meaning, and context and create new ones. This emphasizes the importance of developing reexive abilities within conversation that allow leadership actors to create and develop their position within an unfolding linguistic landscape. For researchers, this means that descriptions of leadership must emphasize systemic units of analysis that account for the patterns of relationships connected with leadership communication.

Uniqueness
A systemic constructionist practical theory of leadership values the highly contextualized avor of leadership by treating conversational moments as distinct and novel given the unique intersection of time, place, people, and topic. Bakhtin (1993) contends that every conversational moment is a once occurent event of Being, which means that the distinctive intersection of time, place, people, and topic creates an event that has never before existed. Understanding the eventness of the moment means paying attention to the unique contingencies of the situation. Researchers and practitioners need to appreciate the unique context of leadership enactments by understanding what has brought individuals to a particular point (the historicity of

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the event) and discerning the good reasons why leaders and followers act as they do within a given system, at a particular time and place, along with the consequences of their action.

Emergence
Every communicative action performs gestures toward the future, opening up some and closing off other possibilities for the evolution of meaning making and action (Dewey, 1925, 1938; Shotter, 1993). For example, when a formal leader angrily calls a team member a foul name, this obligates possible future topics and conversation while prohibiting or making irrelevant other topics and conversation. It is likely that the team member will need to inquire into what prompted the outburst as opposed to continuing the current line of discussion. A systemic constructionist leadership theory views emergence as continuous and ongoing within conversation as each utterance introduces new elements and plants seeds for the further development of key ideas. Leadership researchers and actors, therefore, need to give attention to the way that discursive activity keeps the conversation moving forward and emerging. The value commitment towards emergence entails both developing and analyzing discursive openness and closure practices within leadership communication (Deetz, 1995).

Afrmation
Leadership progresses tasks by articulating ideas in an intelligible fashion, which are recognized by others as important and useful. To act skillfully within conversation, it is important to connect with other persons moral orders and grammars the values people nd important and their rules for meaning and action that provide them orientation during conversation (Holman, 2000). When individuals afrm some element within others d/Discourse, they feel that their lived experience is validated and conrmed. Within the literature on appreciative leadership approaches (Cooperrider et al., 1995), afrmation is linked to valuation. Barge and Oliver (2003) suggest that afrmation, or what they call appreciation, requires connecting with what others value in the moment and coordinating aims and purposes in ways that enhance organizational life (p. 130). The ethical and moral obligation for leadership actors, therefore, is to develop afrmative forms of relating and connecting that help connect people in meaningful ways, thus allowing them to move forward with purpose. In practice, this means that leadership actors must make wise choices regarding which elements of the d/Discourse within the ongoing conversation to afrm and upon which to focus. For example, consider the following utterance by a team member, Im really confused about what Im supposed to be doing. I feel like the task isnt very clear, which is really stressing me out. Within these two sentences, there are many different elements to address and afrm: what does it mean to be confused, what is the team members sense of felt obligation to the leader or the organization as referenced by supposed to be doing, what about the task is clear or unclear, what counts as advancing the task, and what are the meanings and consequences associated with stressing me out. Afrmation involves a process of

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pragmatic experimentation (Wicks & Freeman, 1998) where, in this case, a formal leader invites others to make certain elements of the conversation the collective focus. As is true of any invitation, it may be accepted, rejected, or modied. An afrmative basis for organizing is thus jointly constructed when the parties to a conversation view the invited focus as moving the conversation and task forward. In our theory and research accounts, the value of afrmation directs our attention to articulating the way that afrmation and negation are used within conversation. We concur with Gergen et al. (2004) who contend that, the meaning-making process is rendered robust by virtue of distinctive voices (p. 47). They argue that the robustness of the meaning making process is enhanced by introducing a productive difference in conversations that afrms what has occurred previously and initiates the potential for new meaning making. Barge (2004a) refers to this afrmative process as creating a difference that connects, whereby utterances must simultaneously connect with what has previously transpired and gesture to new possibilities for meaning making. If too little difference is introduced, the utterances do not add any important difference in the conversation as they simply duplicate what has been uttered previously. On the other hand, if the difference is too large and does not connect, persons may feel their contribution has been negated and become defensive. [E]ntries that sustain or extend the potentials of a preceding utterance may be viewed as productive; utterances that curtail or negate what has preceded are destructive. They essentially impede the process of constructing a mutually viable reality (Gergen et al., 2004). Therefore, if our analyses are to focus on emergence, they must also center on how the processes of afrmation and negation unfold in conversations and what gets created.

Creating systemic constructionist analyses of leadership


In light of our conceptualization of leadership and its value commitments, we now turn to the following question, what discursive practices do practical theorists need to consider when creating their accounts of leadership? Any number of discursive practices could be the focus when researching leadership. Nevertheless, we would suggest that a systemic constructionist account of leadership requires practical theorists to focus on three key discursive practices: (1) sensemaking, (2) positioning, and (3) play. By exploring how individuals and systems make sense of their experience and position each other through the use of language, we can capture the co-created and situated avor of leadership in our analyses. Moreover, by exploring how leadership actors and those they work with play with meaning in different ways and invent new possibilities for action, we can explore how tasks progress. These three discursive practices (see Table 2) do not exhaust the variety of discursive practices one can focus on when inquiring into leadership communication, but represent an initial articulation of concepts or tools that may inform systemic constructionist leadership analyses.

Sensemaking
A systemic constructionist practical theory directs our attention to the ways in which leadership d/Discourse creates resources for individuals and larger collectivities to

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Discursive practices Sensemaking Description Directs attention to how d/Discourse creates resources for leadership actors to make sense of the systems in which they participate, organize activity, and progress tasks. Analyses of sensemaking can occur at the individual and collective level using models such as systemic story making, negotiated narratives, and collective mind. Directs attention to the ways that people use language to create social arrangements. Leadership analyses focus on how different kinds of positions (rst and second order, performative and accountive, moral and personal, self and other, tacit and intentional) are created through language. Directs attention to the creation of play within the system to maintain discursive openness. Analyses may focus on the play of differences using the concept of difference from deconstruction to explore how discursive openness and energy are created and sustained in leadership.

Positioning

Play

make sense of the systems they participate in and how this connects to their ability to organize activity and progress tasks. This suggests that our analyses of leadership need to focus on the discursive practices individuals and collectivities use to perform sensemaking. Individual sensemaking Rather than identify traits and other personality variables that inuence sensemaking, a systemic constructionist analysis focuses on how individuals make sense of situations through the internal conversations they have with themselves and the external conversations they have with others. For example, Barges (2004a) study of individuals enrolled in a management development program highlighted how they orchestrated their internal and external conversations to make sense of situations through a practice known as systemic story making. Four key assumptions inform systemic story making: 1. The way leaders make sense of and engage others in a human system depends on the type of systemic story they create. 2. Change is more likely to occur when leaders enter the unique grammars of the other members in a human system. 3. Developing a rich diverse set of systemic stories makes it more likely for managers to engage, elaborate, and change the story of others by working within their grammar. 4. High-quality systemic stories: (a) provide a specic accounting of the details of the situation, (b) respect and appreciate the behavior of the participants in the story, (c) enable action, and (d) introduce difference within organizational life to create change.

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Systemic stories have a different avor and taste from other kinds of stories. Systemic stories give attention to the unique details of a situation from the perspectives of different members within a human system in a respectful and appreciative way that enables action. For example, Barge (2004a) highlights the following account of how a manager in a psychiatric ward created a story to help her manage the unfolding situation: Over a period of 24 hours three nurses came to see me about what they viewed as serious problem with the management of one of their patients. . . . All of the nurses told similar stories about how a young male patient and his girlfriend were withdrawn and very private and appeared not to be coping to what was happening. They all said they could not get through to either of them. They all felt stressed about this and also felt helpless. They felt they did not have anything to offer. They wondered if I could help . . . I was asked if I would go and see the patient and his family. I declined to go and see the patient or his family and chose to see the clinical ward sister who had been one of the nurses who had come to see me. I hypothesized that if I could enable her to consider the situation from more of a meta position, this could enable her in turn to help her staff. I hypothesized that if I got involved in this situation one possible reexive effect would be that the story told could be this situation really is a problem, Shirley has got involved! I therefore considered the art of the nudge, what is the smallest thing that I can do that will make a difference? (p. 118) This particular account is a good example of a systemic story. The leader connects various details constituting the situation the three nurses, the patients, the stories surrounding leadership in the hospital, and her goals as a leader into her story. She creates a story of managerial responsibility where managers should provide assistance to staff when requested. Yet, honoring the request and taking action directly with the family would sustain a problematic pattern that would diminish the nurses present and future ability to manage challenging situations. The manager then connects to the story of managerial responsibility by offering assistance but simultaneously introduces a difference by nudging the nurse toward autonomy and self management rather than comply with the request to meet the family. A number of other models of individual sensemaking exist, such as Shotter and Cunliffes (2003) relationally responsive model. Nevertheless, we see a need for models of individual sensemaking to: (a) highlight the discursive practices that individuals use to make sense of situations, (b) articulate how their sensemaking leads them to perform particular actions and create certain positions within conversation and not others, and (c) examine the consequentiality of their sensemaking for the way they progress tasks with others and connect with the system. Collective sensemaking At the collective level, the task for practical theorists is to explore how groups and organizations manage sensemaking in their d/Discourse. While Weick and Roberts (1993) notion of collective mind may be useful here,6 we focus on Watsons (1994) negotiated narrative as an exemplar of the kind of discursive practices that may be associated with collective sensemaking. A clear move in the direction of learning communities, management students and academics negotiate a narrative by jointly

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considering their diverse accounts of managerial experience either as practitioners or researchers. Discussions of what might work and what might not work in managerial practices are informed by those academic concepts and theories best able to deliver the story behind the story (p. 388). When Watsons students seek to understand avours of the month management initiatives (like Total Quality, learning organizations, empowerment, and so on) where new thinking around work and its management seemingly produces a constant barrage of new catchphrases, pseudo-technical terms, and corporate euphemisms, he introduces them to big D Discourse (p. 392). However, big D Discourse only becomes the story behind the story when Watson interpolates it to arrive at managism, which is a Discourse about directing work organizations (or parts of them) which stresses the role of special techniques, practices, technologies and terminologies (p. 391). He aids their critique of the linguistic barrage by helping them to understand how the normal problems of human existence, identity, and insecurity on top of work demands engender coping mechanisms like managisms, which albeit temporarily may help address these problems with fresh takes. As individuals share their experiences with various managisms in a reexively negotiated narrative, they become more discerning consumers situated to make more reexively informed choices regarding the linguistic resources managist Discourses make available in setting and solving problems in little d discourse. Watsons notion of story behind the story highlights that the collective models of sensemaking we develop need to provide an account of the reexive negotiation of narratives that guide interpretation and inform action.

Positioning
Positioning directs our attention to the way people use language to create social arrangements. Harr and van Langenhove (1999) suggest that positioning can be understood as the discursive construction of personal stories that make a persons actions intelligible and relatively determinate as social acts and within which the members of conversations have specic locations (p. 16). A position is similar to a role in that it is associated with particular felt permissions, obligations, and prohibitions for how to make sense of situations and how to act, but is much more uid and dynamic as social acts continually (re)position individuals during conversations. A position-driven analysis explores the connection among positions, storylines, and speech acts. For example, a formal leader and follower may jointly create a storyline of coaching during a performance appraisal interview where the leader is positioned as the coach and the follower is positioned as a learner. The pattern of speech acts sustains this storyline and positioning as the leader makes suggestions or asks questions and the follower accepts the suggestions and provides answers. Positions, storylines, and speech acts exist in a reexive relationship within one another; the positions individuals create through speech acts evoke particular storylines, which create social forces that reinforce, elaborate, or challenge positions and, in turn, these positions inuence the story lines that are created. Yeungs (1998) study of consultative management within Hong Kong banks is instructive with regard to how managers position subordinates through language. Consider the following example:

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4(3) Articles 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Supervisor: Look! How about this? Is it a good idea? Well get Carson to act as a back-up. Do you think itll work or not? Staff 1: Hell spend less time working in the front ofce? Staff 2: Well, perhaps it (the ofce) hasnt been renovated yet. Once its been renovated, whoever is manning the counter outside and serving a queue can buzz a light [to get extra help]. Otherwise it wont do if those people come to the counter and you refuse them service. Supervisor: Why not simply do this then, if you think its urgent. Naturally you dont do whats not urgent. If those things are urgent, then its better to give them to Carson. Staff 1: That is to say: You people do immediately what you can do. Supervisor: Because for the time being, Carson is still new. If . . . Im afraid that he may get confused sometimes and the chance for making mistakes will be greater. But if we give him internal jobs like checking bills, it may be better for him. That way, it wouldnt matter that much even if [something did go wrong], as its something internal. Staff 1: Itd be better if you let me make the arrangements because . . . (reasons omitted). Supervisor: OK then, OK.

The supervisor invites her subordinates to co-create a storyline of consultative management by requesting their input regarding an idea for Carson to serve as a backup (lines 12). Her subordinates pick-up and sustain this storyline by commenting on the feasibility and challenges associated with her proposal (lines 37). The supervisor then incorporates the subordinates suggestion into another proposal (lines 810) and returns to her initial proposal that Carson be a back-up (lines 1116). At this point, a staff member makes a suggestion for how to implement this proposal (lines 1718) to which the supervisor agrees (line 19). Yeung (1998) observers that Chinese managers practice a kind of didactic leadership where they are viewed as experts by subordinates and their directives are readily accepted. In a cultural system that values hierarchical forms of leadership, how can leadership actors position subordinates to engage in consultative practices that emphasize more egalitarian relationships? Yeungs analysis suggests that these competing values hierarchical versus egalitarian relationships are managed by supervisors creating speech acts that invite the participation of subordinates, but simultaneously tightly regulate it. For example, the supervisor regulates the participation of the staff by introducing the episode with a bipolar question (line 2, Do you think itll [Carson as a back-up] work or not?), which tightly frames the topic to be discussed. The staff members have a voice, but the decision-making process is clearly in the hands of the supervisor. Similarly, in lines 1216 the supervisor retains control by incorporating the staff suggestions into her existing proposal. The supervisors speech acts position the staff to become limited contributors in a consultative management storyline; that is, the staff members subordinate their contributions to the hierarchical and expert position of the supervisor. The models practical theorists need to develop to explore leadership positioning should enable inquiry into the vibrant living interaction of positions, storylines, and speech acts, making it possible to create ne-grained analyses of leadership

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d/Discourse that portray the emerging patterns of coordination and what they create. Harr and van Langenhove (1999) suggest a number of key concepts for exploring the enactment of different forms of positioning within discursive practice, including rst and second order positioning, performative and accountive positioning, moral and personal positioning, self and other positioning, and tacit and intentional positioning. Other possible models drawn from discursive psychology (Edwards, 2005; Potter & Wetherell, 1987), narrative (Cooren & Fairhurst, 2002; Taylor & Van Every, 2000), and conversational analysis (Boden, 1994) also may be employed to inquire into the construction of leadership positioning.

Play
In Batesons (1972) analysis of monkeys at the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco, he noticed young monkeys playing, engaged in an interactive sequence of which the unit actions or signals were similar to but not the same as those of combat (p. 179). Central to his analysis was the importance of metacommunication in establishing a play frame. Monkeys were able to metacommunicatively signal that the ensuing nip was not to be interpreted in the frame of combat, but rather play. Bateson (1972) went on to observe that human activity such as therapy involves clients changing their metacommunicative habits, that is, operating in terms of a different set of rules following therapy. Therapists in this sense play with meaning making processes in order to alter the clients system of rules they use to organize their life. While the notion of framing has been explored in relationship to leadership (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996), the idea of play to create different frames to further meaning making and action has not. Eisenberg (1998) highlights the importance of irting with meaning and playing with the implications of punctuating situations in differing ways to create different frames for meaning making within organizing processes. We want to use the notion of play as it is reected in the phrase, keeping some play in the system. The notion of play directs the attention of practical theorists to explore how leadership d/Discourse maintains a sense of discursive openness and energy within human systems that facilitate constructive patterns of coordination. Keeping some play in the system means creating and maintaining a sense of discursive openness in human systems. A key tenet in systems theory is that energy needs to be imported into the system if it is to retain its sense of organization; otherwise it becomes entropic and decays. From a communication perspective, this requires that the meaning making process engaged by leaders and followers retains a sense of evolutionary openness. One way for keeping some play within the progression of meaning making occurs through the process of deferral (Calas & Smircich, 1999). As Derrida (1988) points out in his use of the term differance, discursive openness is kept alive through the play of differences within symbolic interchanges allowing for the deferral of meaning. Discursive openness can be achieved by deferring meaning making versus xing the meaning of symbolic action. However, if leadership actors participate in a world where meaning is continually changing and deferred, how do leadership actors create some stability in the processes of meaning making and organizing in order to perform tasks and produce required goods and services? The leadership challenge is to create a sense of bounded openness in the meaning making process whereby our meanings and actions are

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simultaneously constrained by what has occurred previously while encouraging new possibilities for meaning making and action to emerge (Eisenberg et al., 2007). As discussed earlier, the robustness of the meaning making process is enhanced by introducing a productive difference in the conversation that simultaneously afrms what has occurred before and initiates the potential for new meaning making (Gergen et al., 2004). The meaning making process becomes closed, repetitive, and lacking progression if too little difference is introduced because the utterances do not add any important difference in the conversation and simply duplicate what has been uttered previously. On the other hand, the meaning making process may become stuck if the difference that is introduced is too large and does not connect such that individuals feel that their contribution has been negated and so become defensive. Keeping some play in the system also highlights the importance of leaderships role in creating and sustaining energy in the system. When we play well with others we are able to coordinate our actions, sometimes effortlessly, and our energy remains high. Quinn and Dutton (2005) observe that energy has a positive effect on the ability of social actors to coordinate their action: [E]nergy has motivational effects: it affects the direction a person chooses to act in, because positive feelings indicate the attractiveness of alternatives, and the effort a person invests, because people tend to invest as much effort into activities as they feel they have energy to invest. (p. 37) The challenge for leadership actors becomes how to create processes of meaning making that create and generate energy during organizing. This represents a shift from traditional approaches to leadership, which Barker (2002) contends have been more concerned with the search for structures that allow organizations and groups to predict and control behavior, as opposed to exploring how leadership creates structures that allow for the emergence of self-organization. The notion of meaning making and maintaining energy within leadership performances in the communication process can be seen in the following two examples provided by a leader in a non-governmental organization (Jensen, 2008). The leader is in charge of a fundraising team that is charged with securing funding for their work in less-developed countries. Part of the leaders supervisory responsibility is managing the call center employees, or phoners, whose major task is to call former donors and persuade them to enter into a PBS (pseudonym for a type of nancial arrangement) agreement that allows the organization to automatically withdraw a monthly contribution from the donors bank account. The following two examples are from a group interview conducted by the leader with the phoners: Example 1
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Leader: Phoner: Leader: Phoner: You dened the supervisor as a factor of making the most PBSagreements as well. Can you talk some more about that? It matters that you giving good advise and . . . Can you deepen it some more? If you, for example say, Try saying this instead. That gives something concrete to try out, and . . . to improve and nd out what works the better . . . well . . . sometimes I just get stuck saying the same things over and over.

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Example 2
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Leader: How about, in the future, to get more personal by asking what their relationship to CARE (pseudonym for the organization) used to be. Maybe ask if they have been travelling with us? I think it is farfetched talking about that. I probably wont know anything about it anyway Where I want to go is. . . . If talking about the personal relationship with CARE is a crucial point in a conversation, as you stated earlier, how can we improve doing that, without being farfetched? What would happen if you asked where they had been? Most people have been with us 10 years ago, so that doesnt really work. What Im looking for and thats why Im in love with the issue of their personal relationship with CARE is how we improve the most in getting more PBS-agreements.

Phoner: Leader:

Phoner: Leader:

In the rst example, the leader is able to play with meaning as he asks descriptive probing questions that invite the phoners to talk about their experience (lines 2, 4, 9). Each question afrms a thread from the phoners preceding utterance and asks a question that elaborates the meaning of the thread. For example, in line 7, the phoner talks about getting stuck and in lines 910, the leader asks the phoner to elaborate the meaning of getting stuck. The leader subsequently talked about how this part of the conversation was energetic and had a feel of progression. On the other hand, the leader stated that the feeling from the second conversation was one of frustration and a lack of energy because the meaning making process seemed stuck. Upon examining the discourse, the leader has clearly developed a hypothesis that talking about the personal relationship with CARE is a crucial factor in getting donors to commit to a PBS agreement (lines 67). However, the phoner does not believe that this is important (lines 45 and 1011). The leader does not afrm or pick up on the phoners resistance and persists in pursuing his hypothesis that a personal relationship does make a difference, to the point that he confesses his love with the issue their personal relationship with CARE (lines 1213). This failure to play with meaning and the resulting lack of energy seems to stem from the leaders continuing negation of the contributions made by the phoner. As these two examples illustrate, it is possible to examine the way meaning making unfolds during leadership conversation and to identify patterns that seem to slow down or freeze the meaning making process as well as patterns that enliven and enrich meaning making. An important focus for practical theory is to explore how leadership d/Discourse constructs meaning making and energy exchanges which promote patterns of organizing that progress tasks and those patterns that delay or hinder task progression.

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Discussion and Conclusions


The study of leadership has grown immensely over the last several years with the development of communicative, discursive, and relational approaches to leadership. The systemic constructionist practical theory we have developed in this essay conceptualizes leadership in these terms, namely as a dynamic evolutionary process that gives close attention to the living unity of persons, communication, action, meaning, and context. By paying close attention to these interconnections as well as the key processes of sensemaking, positioning, and play, a systemic constructionist practical theory is able to study communication as lived experience and makes it possible to explore the moment-by-moment lived dynamics of leadership actors. As such, a systemic constructionist approach has several implications for leadership theory and practice.

A systemic constructionist approach to leadership articulates leadership as a co-constructed moral activity


Our focus on studying communication as lived experience raises the question of what is actionable knowledge or practical theory for leadership actors. While practical theory shares a family resemblance to the reective practitioner and action researcher literature by viewing theory as a tool to facilitate our inquiry into situations (Argyris et al., 1987; Schon, 1983), practical theory elaborates action science research by focusing more intently on the moral dimension of action. Actionable knowledge has a moral avor to it as it determines a set of permissions (what can be done), obligations (what must be done), and prohibitions (what cant be done) within unfolding situations. Moreover Forester (1999) suggests, we learn in action not only about what works but about what matters as well, oftentimes in a contested political arena marked by a clash of ideologies (pp. 67). It is in communication and through discourse that the good, the true, and the beautiful becomes co-constructed among leadership actors within a human system. Viewing leadership as a co-constructed moral activity occurring in communication suggests a need for a more relationally responsive approach to ethics. When we view the social worlds of leadership actors as evolving and jointly constructed with others, we need an ethical formulation that goes beyond general principles or character traits to take into account the role of the other and context in determining ethical behavior. As Bakhtin (1993) contends, all communication is ethical as it is answerable to the unique qualities of the unfolding situation, which means that we need to pay attention to the way communication creates and sustains particular moral orders within situations. Furthermore, as Bakhtin (1993) observes, ethical behavior must answer the unique demands and expectations that others, and the context that we have jointly created with others, places upon responses. Therefore, from a communication perspective, the study of leadership ethics needs to explore the way that discourse creates and sustains particular moral orders within situations.

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A systemic constructionist approach foregrounds the importance of improvisation for leadership actors
In a dynamic conversational world, relying on a xed set of techniques, styles, or scripts is unlikely to produce the kind of situated communication that leadership actors need to generate to t within the evolving context. Rather, leadership actors need to cultivate the wisdom to improvise their action as they go on with others in conversation. Grint (2007) observes that phronesis is a medium that can help leadership actors get their bearings and set direction within situations, It is something intimately bound up with lived experience rather than abstract reason (episteme) but it is not a set of techniques to be deployed (techne) . . . it is about value-judgements not the production of things or the completion of tasks (as in techne) nor the knowledge that facilitates our understanding of the world (episteme). (pp. 236, 238) Phronesis is a form of practical wisdom that involves making situated judgments which enable leadership actors to see the good in situations and to enact communicative actions that generate the good. Developing ones phronetic abilities enables leadership actors to improvise within situations as they are able to pick up on what has happened previously, nd a way to connect to it, and through their subsequent action, create invitations for others to cocreate. Surprisingly little is known about the way leadership actors improvise within conversation, with the majority of the research focusing on the way leadership actors can develop minimally enabling structures for action and foster experimental cultures (Cunha et al., 2003; Vera & Crossan, 2005). We would suggest that the discursive practices of sensemaking, positioning, and play enable us to explore in detail the way that leadership communication is improvised within situations. These practices are not only crucial concepts for facilitating academic inquiry, they are also key processes that leadership actors can employ to further their inquiry into their own situations. They allow leadership actors to learn about and appreciate the wisdom of the human systems they engage, systems that they have had a hand in creating through their participation, from within the ow of conversational activity. Persons who aspire to create and sustain leadership positions need to develop their ability to work with the unique grammars and moral orders of systems that constitute what counts as leadership within a system at particular time and place. Thus, we need to explore how leadership actors develop their reexive abilities. There is a growing literature that emphasizes the importance of reexivity in management and leadership (Cunliffe, 2004; Shotter & Cunliffe, 2003). Leadership actors are encouraged to acknowledge their role in creating the situation that they are engaging in and to recognize that situations are dynamic, as the way they respond to others introduces new material into the situation and changes it. This suggests broadening our view of reexivity, from being primarily an epistemological activity that focuses on making persons aware of how their assumptions inuence how they think and act, such as in the work of Schon (1983), to also acknowledging that reexivity may be viewed as ontological activity that explores how people create connection from within the ow of conversation whose joint action calls forth and sustains identities and relationships (Barge, 2004a).

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A systemic constructionist practical theory of leadership emphasizes the importance of conducting multi-level d/Discourse analyses
The importance of multiple levels of analysis has long been recognized within the leadership literature (Yammarino et al., 2005), but given its psychological bent, it has primarily focused on parsing out the contribution of individual, dyadic, team, and organizational factors on leadership performance. A systemic constructionist approach also emphasizes the importance of multi-level analyses, but in a different way focusing on the interplay between little d and big D discourse. From a systemic constructionist point of view, it is important to examine the small d discourse, language use and the sequenced exchange of messages within a human system, in order to grasp the performative elements of leadership. Yet, at another level, it is also critical to examine how big D discourses enter into the local performance of leadership and how it provides a frame or context for the linguistic resources deployed in the conversation that becomes discourse. Following Broadfoot et al. (2004), we need to construct accounts of leadership performance that examine the interconnections among talk and action and the larger organizational, professional, and cultural Discourses that inform leadership practice. Such analyses should help leadership actors understand where the possibilities lie for systemic evolution and change. Moreover, understanding local performances of leadership and the meaning potentials that stymie or supply new possibilities for relational or organizational change should create the kind of reexivity that leadership actors require for phronesis. Indeed, making wise choices in the moment of communication with one or more leadership actor is the ultimate goal of any practical theory, which is why we have been so careful to distinguish d/Discourse from communication from the outset. A systemic constructionist approach and practical theory of leadership provides a rich opportunity to explore the social construction of leadership within human systems and integrate theory and practice. The challenge ahead for leadership researchers wishing to operate from this perspective is to begin working with these ideas in empirical settings, eshing out the practices associated with the concepts and ideas we have presented, and reecting on what their inquiry suggests for provocative new concepts, questions, and tools that create additional insight into the performance and practice of leadership.

Notes
1. Alvesson and Karreman (2000b) actually specify four levels of discourse analysis; however, we follow their convention of more parsimoniously separating discourse from Discourse. 2. For example, only Fairhursts (2007) last chapter devotes itself to praxis and serves only as an introductory discussion. 3. However, it is important here to distinguish between a practical theory and the way it is used or its grammar of practice. The former refers to the key ideas, concepts, and relationships that provide an orientation to situations, while the latter refers to the rules for meaning and action that inuence how these ideas, concepts, and relationships are used in practice to conduct inquiry. For example, scholars who adopt a quantitative approach to study leadership use rules to make choices about what statistical tests are

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Living Leadership Barge & Fairhurst appropriate given the unique intersection of their theoretical presuppositions and hypotheses, the way they operationalized the selected variables, the mode of data collection, and the particular characteristics of the research participant population. A reexive relationship exists between a practical theory and its grammar of practice as the practical theory suggests particular tools or ways for structuring inquiry, and the lessons we learn from grappling with these tools as we conduct our inquiry subsequently informs the development of the practical theory. 4. Weick (2007) terms this an E-prime mind-set in which he eschews use of the verb to be in favor of rich description. 5. Weick and Sutcliffe (2001) also recommend a reluctance to simplify interpretations, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise. 6. For example, Weick and Roberts (1993) analysis suggests that the models of group and organizational level sensemaking need to help us explain: (1) how collective representations help or hinder people co-orient themselves to situations; (2) how such collective representations are co-created, sustained, and altered through practice; (3) how the level of detail in collective representations inuences the degree to which persons contributions take heed of the anticipated responses of others within a system; and (4) how the way individuals construct the boundaries of the system, or the system-inview, inuences collective sensemaking.

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J. Kevin Barge is Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University. He received his MA and PhD degrees from the University of Kansas. His research interests center on developing a social constructionist approach to management and leadership, exploring the role of appreciative forms of communication to transform organizations, and articulating the relationship between dialogue and organizing in organizational and community contexts. His research has been published in the Academy of Management Review, Management Communication Quarterly, Journal of Applied Communication Research, The OD Practitioner, Communication Theory, and Communication Monographs. [email: kbarge@tamu.edu] Gail Fairhurst is a Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on organizational communication, leadership, and organizational discourse. Her work has received numerous awards, and she is the author of Discursive Leadership: In Conversation with Leadership Psychology (SAGE, 2007), and coauthor of The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership (JosseyBass, 1996). She has also served on numerous editorial boards and currently serves as an Associate Editor for Human Relations.

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